There is something magical about arithmetic and numbers in the Pesach hagaddah read at the seder table. There seems to be a partiality to the number four: four cups of wine, four questions, four sons.
The rabbis will find hidden meanings in the numerology or gematria. I enjoy the four cups of wine and I truly hope Elijah the prophet will enjoy my choice of red Italian wine for him when he visits my home . He will wink once if the news is good….the messiah is on his way…and twice if the news is as bad and sad as it has been for centuries…. He’s not coming this year.
The four questions are not problematic. What makes this night different from all the other nights of the year? Tonight we eat matzot. Every night we may eat all manner of legumes and vegetables. Tonight only very bitter ones. During the year we never dip our vegetables in salt water, not even once. But tonight we dip them twice.
The Ben Ish Chai offers an explanation. The first dipping is to remind us of Joseph’s coat of many colors which his brothers dipped into the blood of a goat to make it appear to their father Jacob that his son had been killed.
The second dipping is to recall the freedom of the exodus from Egypt. Hyssop branches were dipped in the blood of the Pesach offering and were then used to apply a marking on their doorposts as a sign that this was the home of Hebrews in order that the angel of death would see it and would pass over the Hebrew home and would spare the first-born son.
The fourth question is perhaps the most simple to explain. At every meal we can sit in any position comfortable to us. We can sit up tall and straight, we can sit side-ways, we can slouch. But at the seder table we lean on the left side while eating and drinking with the right hand. This was to emulate the custom of royalty who ate reclining on their left side. It is to remind us that we are no longer slaves but freemen, royalty and servants to our King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.
And then we come to the story of the four sons… one who was wise, one who was simple, one who was too young to ask questions about the festival of Pesach, and one who is called the wicked son. It is with the fourth son that I take very strong objection.
Why is he called wicked? What sins had he committed? Perhaps he was not as observant of the mitzvot as other members of his family. Perhaps he questioned the reasons for the observances. Perhaps he disagreed with his father’s answers.
But he was there. He was at the Pesach seder table together with his brothers. He could have refused to come but he chose to honor the holiday with his family.
Which brings us to the fifth son. The four plus one. He is the son who is absent from the family seder. He is the son who says it means nothing at all to him. He is the son who dishonors his family and his faith. He is the bitter son who looks elsewhere for his pleasures and his salvation. For him, there is little hope. It is he, not the fourth son, who is wicked.
And painfully there are far too many fifth sons among our Jewish people in these days of our redemption. We must strive to strengthen our efforts to bring him back to his family, his people, his identity, his nation. We do not do so out of criticism or rejection. On the contrary. We do it with an open hand and a loving heart. Hopefully, next Pesach there will be five sons at the seder table.